Living in 4 Dimensions

A couple of days ago I had coffee with my friend, Gordon Dahlby, and he told me a story that “added a new dimension” to my life.

Gordon told me about one afternoon when he was walking with a friend around the Mall in Washington D.C. They came to a “buggy way”. This looked like an alley, but in reality it was one of the passageways that was designed in the early 1800s to accommodate horse and buggy vehicles as they traveled around the nation’s capitol.

Gordon said that he stopped for a moment to take time to absorb the sight. His younger companion said something like “If my mom were here, she would be taking pictures from here and there and getting all excited about this old alley. It’s so embarrassing.” Gordon thought for a moment and then responded “You need to remember that your mother would be experiencing this moment in 4 dimensions.”

4 dimensions – what did he mean about experiencing in 4 dimensions?

Aren’t we limited to only 3 dimensions: Height, Width and Depth? (My favorite description of the 3 dimensions is in the 1960 movie, The Time Machine. I couldn’t find that specific clip, but here is a trailer clip that “kind of” addresses it.)

The answer is a resounding “No.”

The 4th dimension is Time. It involves being able to integrate the past or the future into your perception of an object or person or experience. Dr. Dahlby’s observation that when this woman’s mother experiences something she includes the Time dimension as well implies that she is including all of the things that she knows about the “experience” from personal experiences, historical accounts and related experiences.

Typically, when people discuss dimensions, they require that we must be able to move between them. My daily life is lived in 3 dimensions because; I can move side to side (width dimension); I can move forward and back (depth dimension); and I can move up and down (height dimension.) This is my life. The question remains, however, “How am I limited to experience these 3 dimensions in my life?” The potential to move through these dimensions is there, but can I really do it?” Probably not. I probably can’t experience all of my world through 3 dimensions.

I can enter a room and experience most of it by moving forward, back (depth) and side-to-side (width.) I am over 6 feet tall, so I can probably almost reach the ceiling (or stand on a chair if necessary) to experience the height dimension. But what about when I leave the comfortable confines of my house? I can perceive the three dimensions, but can I experience them? In my home, I can experience all three dimensions because I can see and feel them in three directions. But these 3-dimensional experiences are extremely limited.

What about when I go to the shore and stand with my feet in the waves. I can move forward, back, side-to-side and up/down (6 feet) but the rest of my reality is limited to what I can see and hear. I can see the sky, but I can’t touch it. I have to imagine it in my mind. I can see the ocean disappearing off into the distance, but I can’t feel it in the distance. I have to experience it in my mind. I am limited by the physical boundaries that are imposed upon me by gravity, distance and the fact that my soul is contained in a physical body that has limits. I can move around in the 3-dimensional world but some of my movement is in my mind because I can’t physically do it.

I must admit that the only time that I felt that I was truly in a 3-dimensional world was when I was SCUBA diving off Cozumel. I was 30 feet down amongst a school of Clown fish, and as I looked up to watch my bubbles drift to the surface, I realized that I wasn’t limited to the 6-foot band of height that I have on land. I could move up, down, forward, back, left and right at will. I was truly living in a 3-dimensional world because I could navigate my way throughout this world.

Time is another dimension through which I have traveled. Admittedly, my physical movement is uni-directional. I live life by moving forward in time. It is possible to to move back in time, but at this time it is only by remembering it in my mind. I may remember an exact incident because I lived through it and I retain the details. I might have to imagine it because I only read an account or saw a video or heard a discussion about the event. Either way, it can be as exact as touching the sand (remembering) or as vague as imagining the sky (recalling someone else’s account of an incident). It is another dimension of experience through which we live.

This also applies to the future tense as well. Jennifer James talks about Thinking in the Future Tense. When we are experiencing/viewing and event/object, we must integrate a future perspective as well because it allows us to consider how this event/object will/can be in the future. This attitude needs to be the basis in our teaching and educational leadership. Last month, at an ITEC conference, Daniel Pink said “We must teach for our students’ future, not our pasts.”

Living Life through the 4th dimension provides the context that gives our lives meaning. Teaching and leading with the past and present tense provides relevance to our activities and meaningful direction to our leadership.

BTW to all of you physicists. Yes, I know that 4 dimensions are no big thing when you are a String Theorist. The String Theory community boasts 10 dimensions. I have to admit that I don’t know much about this, but it sounds like something I will have to research and share with you in a future posting.

What do you know about 10 dimensions? Share your knowledge with us.

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